Movie Review – Starship Troopers: Invasion

I have just completed, yet another, popcorn munching movie – Starship Troopers: Invasion! Something about the Starship Troopers franchise has always excited me. Perhaps because the number of movies involving archetypal characters, interstellar warfare, spaceships, soldiers and alien bug warfare is fairly limited.

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Movie Review – Resident Evil: Retribution

Let’s start this off with an admission – I enjoy the Resident Evil movies.

Run, Milla, RUN!

I have rarely been able to watch a movie for simply popcorn value. There are few that I have enjoyed for simply the rollercoaster value of the story. Stories that get me excited usually have well-developed worlds, complex and intelligent characters, and unique stories. Some action movies can have these elements but they can get pushed aside or buried in all the eye-splosions.

I am also a huge fan of horror movies. Almost everything gets a chance except for torture porn. Never really found a purpose in it. The ones that are the most interesting are the ones with malevolent spirits, zombies, or horrific situations. Monster movies rarely pay off. Perhaps I’ll share my top list at some point.

With that out there – I fully acknowledge that the Resident Evil movies barely contains what I usually look for in good movies. It isn’t horror (anymore), the world is complex (through its convolutedness), and the characters are all one-dimensional (except for Alice who might actually have had an interesting character journey).

And yet – there are very few movies that blend all the elements that Resident Evil movies seem capable of doing. Since it exists so far outside of normal rules it seems capable of stretching believe-ability much further than other action movies.

I have been a fan of the Resident Evil movies since the first one came out in 2002. My exposure to the video games was fairly limited so I was able to enjoy the movies without a lot of passion for the series. I knew of various plotlines and some of the characters but as most movies deviate I wasn’t concerned. In college I was able to play about an hour of the original Resident Evil game on PlayStation and later played and won the remake on Nintendo GameCube. The games were complex and interesting with suspense, horror, action, mystery and surprise all rolled into one unique package. The only other one that I played was Resident Evil 4, which introduced the zombie strain of Las Plagas, which plays a dominant role in Resident Evil: Retribution.

Spoiler free comments to follow…

Resident Evil: Retribution is the 5th and most painful addition to the movie franchise. In the grand scheme of things this segment contributes almost nothing to the series. Characters long since dead are re-introduced, new characters are added with minimal background, and continuing characters feel included as fan service for this chaotic menagerie. There are entire sequences, using 3D holographic displays, that fly through the complex as if it were an actual video game. The characters literally have to go through zones, complete objectives, and then move on to the next zone. It felt like an odd reboot of “Running Man” more than a Resident Evil movie. It was also like the old-school game “Smash TV” – a game about a contestant who goes from room to room in an attempt to survive and win the game show. Once I put that layer onto the movie, it became much more enjoyable to watch the senseless and plot-less actions on the screen.

The action sequences were over the top with the odds being 1:50+ in many scenarios – and the bad guys unable to hit anything. And who are the good guys fighting against this time? The well-known zombies of past installments are gone and replaced with predominately big “boss” style monsters that continue to plague the characters. Let’s not forget that there are zombies that now wield guns and drive cars and tanks. Not really sure how to explain that one away in any reasonable way.

And typical of the end of each Resident Evil movie, this one ends with yet another cliffhanger. The entire movie ends up feeling like a setup for the next one. Paul Anderson says that if this one does well that the next one will be the final installment. I hope that this one does just well enough so that we can finally wrap this story up – but it saddens me that in order to get the completion of the story that I have enjoyed – I have to give them money for this. Bummer.

If you do end up liking the broader Resident Evil universe, there are a few cool anime movies that are worth checking out:
Resident Evil: Degeneration (2008)
Resident Evil: Damnation (2012)

I wonder what will fill the void once these are gone. Have you heard about anything coming our way that sounds just as exciting? The World War Z movie has been having some issues but looks promising!

Movie Review – Gods and Generals

“Gods and Generals” – an excessively long and unnecessarily boring movie that surpassed the length of the Civil War! 

Every few years another war movie of epic proportion is released. Some are incredibly memorable, like “Saving Private Ryan” or “Band of Brothers”. There are others that are completely terrible such as “Battlefield Earth” or “The Conqueror” – a movie so bad it caused John Wayne’s cancer due to being filmed in a radioactive part of Utah! There are also those movies that look new but are really just fresh paint on an old story, like “Avatar”.

Then there is “Gods and Generals” … a touchy-feely movie masquerading as a civil war movie oozing with reasons for speechification. Released in 2003 with the screenplay and director credits belonging to Ronald F. Maxwell  and based off the amazing book of the same name by Jeff Shaara everything seemed like a surefire success.

The movie becomes a prequel to the successful movie “Gettysburg”, released 10 years prior in 1993. Jeff is the son of Michael Shaara, author of the book “Killer Angels”, which was the basis for the movie “Gettysburg”. Which means the source material and authenticity of “Gods and Generals” should be a great starting point for Ronald’s adaptation. Ronald was responsible for the screenplay and directing of “Gettysburg” as well – another plus. Finally, with almost all the original cast and crew reprising their roles from “Gettysburg” – how could you go wrong?

Gods and Generals – The book that reads quicker than the movie!

And perhaps this is why everything did go wrong…

Let me start this off with a confession: The movie “Gettysburg” is one of my favorite movies of all times. I loved the book it was based off of and even wrote a major paper about the battle of Gettysburg itself. Which meant I wanted  to love this movie just as much. I approached this as a fan of everything the previous movie had done. Which is what made the experience so painful.

Let me continue to confess: I watched the last 40 minutes of this excruciatingly long 3.5 hour movie in 1.5x speed. It HAD to be done just so I could get through it. The battle scenes went on and on and on. There was almost no dialogue, dramatic tension or ability to understand what was happening in the battles. Did they just assume that because everyone knew the South lost the Civil War (ya’ll know that, right?!) that any level of dramatic tension was pointless? Soldiers are constantly dying by gunshot, bayonets, or cannon. One soldier remarks that it is a challenge to differentiate between the North and South uniforms at one point – but does it have to be so confusing for the viewer? If the intention was to make us feel like we’re just as confused as the soldiers – it worked. I found myself wishing there was a little video game map in the upper right with a CNN ticker along the bottom to tell me how things were progressing in the battle.

The mini-map really helps me see what is going on!

They could have also made the battles much shorter if they didn’t use the same shot over and over and over again. It almost became a drinking game to see how many times the same shot could be used. I know it is expensive to film this stuff but perhaps find an alternative to extending your war scene and tighten it up through better editing and pull the camera in closer to touch on the emotions of the actual soldiers. Just a thought…

The length of this movie is felt through almost every scene as the viewer is drug along (probably because they fell asleep) from one long speech after another. The dialogue and accents used are the eloquent, educated, and elevated stereotype that has become some prominent with Southerners. Whether this is actually what they would have said and how they would have said it, it feels like a caricature of itself that makes the content almost impossible to digest. Conversations in the movie “Gettysburg” felt dramatically less forced then they did in here.

I loved that many of the same actors were back to reprise their roles from” Gettysburg”. Getting the same cast and crew to reprise their roles is probably the most impressive achievement this movie was capable of doing. It would allow for a more seamless viewing experience to go from one movie to the other – except in one place. Stephen Lang, who many probably know from “Avatar” or “Terra Nova”, reprises his role in this movie – except as a completely different character! This is one of the most confusing things I think I have ever seen in my movie viewing history. In “Gettysburg”, the movie many people probably saw prior to this one, he played the doomed General Pickett (of the infamous Pickett’s Charge) and in this movie he plays General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. They’re both popular Southerners and their affect, appearance and portrayals are different – but it is incredibly difficult to not to separate the differences between the two characters. In terms of trying to create a larger movie trilogy continuity, it is jarring and strange. He was great in the role but it was strange.

General Pickett

General Jackson

As in “Gettysburg”, some of the best lines are spoken by the only fictional character in the trilogy – Buster Killrain. The irascible Irishman lends an aged, old-world, “been there, done that” sensibility that directly contrasts with the North/South sensibilities seen in the movie. Once again, Killrain reprises his role of delivering short and pointed quips that have deeper impact on the viewer than 5 minute long monologues by other characters. I could listen to him verbally smack characters around all day long!

In the end the movie was a failure – costing $60 million to make and only bringing in $12 million. The plan was to film the 3rd book in the trilogy “The Last Full Measure” but with the abysmal failure of “Gods and Generals” – we will most likely never see that movie made.

There have been other great Civil War movies like “Andersonville”, “Glory”, “The North and the South”, and the Ken Burns Civil War Documentary.

Skip this movie and watch some of the other civil war ones mentioned here. If you like historically accurate and good character study books, make sure to check out Jeff Shaara’s other war-centric books. Coming soon I’ll share the paper that I wrote about Gettysburg back in 1993!

The Southern Civil War Generals…can anyone spot who doesn’t belong here?
(Spoiler: He financed the movie)

Movie Review – Mirror, Mirror

On a recent 4-hour flight I found myself bored with my books, tired of my iPhone games, and unwilling to watch Game of Thrones on my small screen that I decided to watch “Mirror, Mirror” to pass the time. It was one of the large movie mistakes that I’ve made in a long time.

“Mirror, Mirror” is a 2012 comedic fairy tale film “based” off the Brothers Grimm classic “Snow White”. It stars Julia Roberts as The Queen, Lily Collins as Snow White, Armie Hammer (seriously?!) as the Prince, Nathan Lane as an irrelevant servant, and Sean Bean reprising his trademark role of King as, well, “King”. You can tell from this exciting line-up that we’re headed into what will be an amazing movie.

Early reviewers or the press, not sure who exactly, was touting this movie as a “modern version of the classic ‘Princess Bride’ story.” I’m not sure how much they were paid to claim this association but drawing parallels between “Princess Bride” and “Mirror, Mirror” is like saying Chef Boyardee is equivalent to a generationally passed down Italian recipe. One has all the right ingredients to make something appealing, classic, and soul-filling .The other is clearly calories intended to get through a hectic day an onto something more important than enjoying what you’re consuming. This movie filled me up even less than that and left me ill afterwards.

Fairy Tales have experienced a cultural renaissance lately, probably a result of the Twilight phenomenon, in books, television, movies and comics. This is demonstrated by the fact that there were TWO Snow White movies released within 2.5 months of each other (“Snow White and the Huntsman” is the other one). I have not seen “Huntsman” so I will be unable to draw any direct comparison there but there are enough other options to contrast here.

Here is the official synopsis:
One of the most beloved stories of all time is coming to life in the motion picture event for the whole family, Mirror Mirror. A fresh and funny retelling of the Snow White legend, Mirror Mirror features breakout star Lily Collins as Snow White, a princess in exile, and Julia Roberts as the evil Queen who ruthlessly rules her captured kingdom. Seven courageous rebel dwarfs join forces with Snow White as she fights to reclaim her birthright and win her Prince in this magical comedy filled with jealousy, romance, and betrayal that will capture the hearts and imaginations of audiences the world over. The film also stars Armie Hammer as the Prince, and Nathan Lane as the hapless and bungling servant to the Queen. — (C) Relativity

Now that we got that out of the way…I will say that the parallels between this movie and the ABC series “Once Upon a Time” (http://beta.abc.go.com/shows/once-upon-a-time) are astounding. Heading into its second season, the tv show does amazing things re-inventing the story and intertwining it with other fairy tales in a way that feels fresh, new and surprising. For those who watch “Once” there are no surprises left in “Mirror” that wont feel pale in comparison and heavily copied. Where the tv show creates strong, intelligent, considered characters with motivations and backstory, every character in “Mirror” seems to have only the shallowest of motivations and justifications for their actions.

—- SPOILERS AHEAD —-

It is a challenge to find anything redeeming about this movie. In our modern day desire to have everything re-written and contemporized (it is debatable as to whether this phenomena is succeeding or not) the movie attempts to craft a new Snow White story while holding over many elements from the original. There are the typical items: Evil Queen, Snow White, Dwarves, Prince, Apple. From there it goes its own way with the attempt to make Snow White smarter, edgier and more swashbucklier than her storybook self. Everything about this movie is confusing and leads the viewer to wondering “why” so often.

Nathan Lane is terrible and wasted in this movie. Whether you’re a fan of his or not you can almost see his career dying on screen as you watch him scuttle about as a servant to the Queen. He is intended to serve the role of the legendary Huntsman in this story – taking Snow out into the woods to be slaughtered – but he is anything but. It is less his compassion and more his buffoonery that catapults the story forward. I understand many in Hollywood make children’s movies for their kids – so I hope that is the case here. Otherwise, he could have been replaced by any unknown actor and the same impact would have been had.

The Queen herself is rarely seen as doing anything really “evil” and truly does fall more in the self-indulgent step-mother (of fairy tale fame) category. Her wickedness barely extends to Snow, as she seems educated, clothed, fed and catered to like a royal. She doesn’t even need to bother herself with the issues of ruling a kingdom. The primary point of contention between Snow and Queen is that Queen wants to keep on ruling, which means taxes and undesirable treatment for the citizens, while Snow would replace that with her…benevolent rule perhaps? Neither is presented as any tremendously better option other than the Queen taking the throne for herself so she can remain young. Not the greatest of deeds – nor the worst in the history of most monarchs.

Not as sinister looking as one would expect an usurper of the throne to look

The Dwarves have names now. Not names that we might have known as kids but new ones like Butcher, Chuckles, and Wolf. They seem to have received names and become bandits for no real reason other than needing them to be different than what they were previously.

I understand it is a fairy tale and a movie that was intended for families but as a father I’d like to see my 2 boys (eventually) being exposed to more proper role models. The movie attempts to create a rich and deep Snow White but it ends up coming off as even worse than the original in many ways. The original Disney story made popular the song “Someday My Prince Will Come” – putting Snow in a position of waiting for a man to come along and elevate her from her position in life. Take her away from the domesticated lifestyle of cleaning for dwarves to cleaning his castle. While not a very ideal situation compared to what women are looking for today, the “old” Snow had a strong consistency of character that made understanding her easier. This new Snow White is humble and obedient (with a mild streak of petulance) up until the point when she discovers the Queen is stealing tax dollars and starving the citizens – all in an effort to stay young and beautiful.

The Queen smiles while a mildly-upset Snow White graciously accepts her punishment.

Lately there has been a tremendous amount of internet conversation around the types of images and roles that we’re casting our women into. One individual, Anita Sarkeesian of Feminist Frequency (http://www.feministfrequency.com/), recently had a successful Kickstarter targeted at a research project for “Tropes vs. Women in Video Games” (http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/566429325/tropes-vs-women-in-video-games/posts). The Kickstarter received a tremendous amount of support as well as its share of trolls and haters (http://www.feministfrequency.com/2012/06/kickstarter-project-funded-with-6967-backers/ – scroll down to see the new reactions and backlash). Women and their role in video games..interesting. Aren’t men the only one gaming or do we need to consider that our wives, friends, daughters, aunts, mothers and grandmothers are being exposed to these images? What about the impact to our young boys just learning about gender roles and equality?

She’s going to be playing a long, long, long time!

Or how about this POV and associated CNN article on pretty girls pretending to be geeks to get attention (http://whatever.scalzi.com/2012/07/26/who-gets-to-be-a-geek-anyone-who-wants-to-be/). I bring up these points in relation to “Mirror, Mirror” because they ran through my head as I watched this movie. Aside from the cosplay opportunities presented by the wardrobe, I struggled to find anything that a woman would find redeemable about the female roles within this movie. The movie barely passes the Bechdel Test (http://bechdeltest.com/ – check it out if you haven’t heard about it – very interesting as it relates to the roles of women in moves!). Putting this type of scrutiny on movies, with today’s enlightened audience, makes enjoying movies like this even more challenging. The Queen and Snow are two-dimensional characters that do little to progress the role of women in movies – and in fact – take it a step backwards. Yes, it is a fairy tale, but this is a family movie intending to show themes and archetypes to children. Archetypes and stereotypes that they’ll take forward into life.

Does this sword make me look more threatening?

The only unique thing in this movie was the use of the Mirror. Instead of acting like the magical mirror we expect, this one acts as a portal to another dimension. The Queen is seen entering the Mirror and is instantly transported to another realm, containing only an island on a lake with a small house. The house is sparsely furnished and contains yet another mirror (mirrors within mirrors could have been another interesting magical approach to consider. As if evil intentions reflecting in upon themselves eventually destroy themselves…). Little explanation is made for this artifact and it was one of the coolest things introduced into the story. Not that we’re looking for sequels here, but if there were a magical artifact that could be pulled into a sequel, it was this. The Mirror in this story is what contains all the magic that the Queen is capable of making use of. It appears as if the Queen has no magical ability all her own. The ability to stay young or create the infamous apple all come via the Mirror.

Lastly, there are storytelling elements that are just plain odd:

  • Snow appears to train to become a warrior in moments through a comical confusing montage
  • Everything happens so quickly – like Snow falling in love, Prince falling in love, Snow training, a wedding getting assembled – that it is unrealistic (yes, I know it is a fairy tale!)
  • As time goes on, just as the story could get more serious, it starts to get more goofy and comical. It is jarring and out of place for what has been reasonably straightforward up until this timeframe.
  • The Queen rarely delivers lines in sinister or evil ways and genuinely appears to be happy with her situation as “step-mother”. She was a challenging character to really hate.
  • Again, Sean Bean as the King? The casting director could have tried a little harder on this one…

Ignore my wedding dress while we duel…

Fairy Tales serve as a device to communicate the thoughts, desires and fears of a particular time period. We can look back through the centuries to see how the story of Snow White has evolved and changed as different authors take up the pen in their respective periods, borrow what motifs they like, and evolve the story as they see fit. The story of “Mirror, Mirror” reflects so poorly on the source material and our current-day sensibilities that this story should be quickly and decisively forgotten.

Up next…renting “Snow White and the Huntsman”?

John de Lancie – My TV Show Surprise!

Recently I was watching the original Battlestar Galactica episode “Take the Celestra” (I had to do my homework to see how the new rendition compared to the old version). While working on my laptop between scenes I heard a very recognizable voice that quickly drew my eye to the screen.

Looking up I saw a handful of Terran police talking on screen (apparently having just come from an intergalactic BMX tournament of some kind as indicated by their very threatening helmets). The lead officer was clearly John de Lancie as his voice has become one of the more easily identifiable inflections in the geek community.

Many of us, like myself, first encountered John in Star Trek: The Next Generation premiere episode “Encounter at Farpoint” as the omnipotent Q. He went on to make many appearances in DS9 and Voyager – and continued on into various other scifi shows. His tone and inflection are so clearly identifiable that he doesn’t even need to use the “Q” voice to be quickly identified. He even recently had a small part in Assassin’s Creed 2: Revelations that I hope will be larger than the 5 minutes of speaking time allowed him in the game.

I am always surprised when I see an actor/actress that I think “started” there career where *I* encountered them – but had an entire career before that intersection. Or you remember an actor from a previous “life” who has grown dramatically larger than their origins might have indicated (George Clooney – Facts of Life and Leonardo Dicaprio – Growing Pains or Billy Zane as an 1-line extra in Back to the Future).

In our normal lives we rarely get to see the type of rock star growth that can happen in Hollywood and am always excited, encouraged and elated to see that there are instances where talent and hard work prove off. Most people in life have slow trajectory growth and movies/television have a way of taking someone from nothing to something in a short time. Music can do this as well but rarely do the musicians grow, evolve, expand their career the way most actors/actresses tend to do. While it is still all acting, the choices that they make with their career are very deliberate – usually much more so than our own meandering and easily anticipated step-after-step lives. There are those last few who go even further to move out of acting and into producing (Ron Howard, Tom Hanks, Clint Eastwood, George Clooney) and we’re exposed to yet another amazing career jump. I can take a lot of inspiration from these types of individuals.

And just in case you were interested in more background information, here you go…

Battlestar Galactica: Take the Celestra
http://movies.netflix.com/WiPlayer?movieid=70072546&trkid=3326467&t=Battlestar+Galactica%3A+Take+the+Celestra

Wikipedia Description
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Take_the_Celestra

John De Lancie
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_de_Lancie

The Tolkien Professor & Mythgard Institute – Your Geek Education Options

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The @tolkienprof and @mythgardian want to educate you about Tolkien!

How ready are you for the THREE Hobbit movies that are about to come out?

Do you want to know more about Tolkien, the Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit? Understand how he influenced the fantasy worlds you are exposed to today?

I have been a Tolkien fan since 7th Grade when I was first introduced to “The Hobbit”. I learned about The Tolkien Professor and his podcasts over a year ago when my 2nd son was born and I found myself up at all times of the night taking care of him. I poured through hundreds of hours of free lectures that the Tolkien Professor has put online for you to enjoy. He covers Tolkien influences, the Hobbit, Lord of the Rings, Silmarillion and many of his earlier works unknown by many readers. His lectures are well recorded with energy and a great flow to the content. Students participate in some of the podcasts and help keep things fluid and interesting. You can choose to go through whole courses or narrowly focus in on particular books & chapters.

Highly recommended for any fan of Tolkien and fantasy!

Tolkien Literature

On Fairy Stories: http://www.tolkienprofessor.com/wp/lectures/introduction/

(Great background to understand how Tolkien cared for and approached all his works)

Undergraduate Tolkien Survey: http://tolkienprofessor.com/wp/lectures/courses/the-undergraduate-tolkien-survey/

(This covers everything, not as deep as some others, but if you want a great

Lectures on the Hobbit: http://www.tolkienprofessor.com/wp/lectures/the-hobbit/

(Multi chapter podcasts about the Hobbit that go even deeper than the Survey)

Silmarillion: http://tolkienprofessor.com/wp/lectures/courses/silmarillion-seminar/

(Chapter-by-chapter lectures on one of the most amazing and complicated fantasy & literature books out there!)

Riddles in the Dark: http://www.mythgard.org/exclusives/riddles-in-the-dark/

(A new series about the Hobbit, with guest lecturers and also very topical with discussions around the new movies. I have not done these yet.)

Tolkien Q&A Sessions: http://www.tolkienprofessor.com/wp/lectures/bonus/

(Lots of little good nuggets in here – like Tom Bombadil and “winged” Balrogs)

Non-Tolkien Related Lectures:

Faerie & Fantasy: http://tolkienprofessor.com/wp/lectures/courses/faerie-and-fantasy/ (I have not taken this one yet)

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The Mythgard Institute

In addition to all these great (FREE) lectures, you can also expand your Tolkien, fantasy and scifi knowledge further by taking credited and non-credited classes at The Mythgard Institute. One of the most affordable ways to take classes and/or get a degree in this area – which is one of their commitments to their students. I have wanted to take courses here for the past year and am intimiated by the time commitment that it would take to read, listen to lectures, participate in class sessions, and write the papers that I still haven’t signed up for a class. But I hope to one day soon!

Check out the catalog here: Mythgard Fall 2012 Course Catalog – http://www.mythgard.org/academics/fall-2012-course/

They can be followed here on Twitter: @tolkienprof and @mythgardian and at The Mythgard Institute (http://www.mythgard.org) and The Tolkien Professor (http://www.tolkienprofessor.com/)

Corey Olson (the Tolkien Professor) also has a new book out called “Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit” (http://www.mythgard.org/exclusives/exploring-the-hobbit/) that I am excited to read in the near future.

For a fan of Tolkien, his works or epic storytelling and world building – these classes and podcasts are for you!

Harry Potter Wizard’s Collection – 8 Movies on 31 Discs

The entire Harry Potter movie series on DVD & Blu-Ray = just as much overkill as the books. I enjoyed the books well enough and was pleased by the impacts it had on children and fantasy reading – but some things do need editing.

It seems that most of the reviews of the movies/bonus content are not pleased as well.

Although, if this was Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, or Back to the Future, I would probably be considering the same thing!

http://www.geekexchange.com/explore-the-harry-potter-wizards-collection-its-luggage-loaded-with-8-movies-on-31-discs-10615.html